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More Cool Sh*t I’ve Read—and Seen—Lately

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This is the fourth installment of my monthly feature “Cool Sh*t I’ve Read Lately," in which I draw attention to, um, cool stuff. (Here are columns one, two and three.)

Breakthrough Journal. My brain is still sore from all the stretching it underwent this week at the 2014 "Dialogue" of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank founded in 2003 by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, green activists who had become frustrated with conventional environmentalism. In an essay for Scientific American last week, environmentalist Clive Hamilton accuses the Breakthroughers of "dangerous, wishful thinking," but I prefer adjectives like "iconoclastic" and "provocative." (See my 2008 chat with Shellenberger on Bloggingheads.tv and my 2011 Q&A with Shellenberger and Nordhaus on this blog.) I'll post some thoughts on the 2014 Dialogue soon, but for now I'll just draw attention to the Institute's journal, which publishes an eclectic mix of articles. See, for example, in the most recent issue, articles by journalists Will Boisvert on biofuels and Emma Marris on haute cuisine and by security analyst Karen Greenberg on drones. (Re Greenberg's article, which unfortunately is not online, I hope the Breakthroughers keep addressing militarism, a threat just as urgent as climate change and species loss.)

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. It's scary to think of how diminished public discourse would be in the U.S. without Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Stewart is not only an outrageously funny, smart comedian. His show was also the springboard for Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report and now John Oliver of Last Week Tonight, on HBO. Oliver reports stories with a mixture of outrage and wide-eyed incredulity, and he likes topics with a sci-tech angle. See his segments on global warming, net neutrality and television's Dr. Oz and his interview with funnyman Stephen Hawking. What does it say about American media that some of the toughest reporting is done by comedians?

"The Disruption Machine," by Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, June 23, 2014. Lee Vinsel, a technology historian and my colleague at Stevens Institute of Technology, has been so driven to distraction by scholars blathering about "innovation" that he recently founded "Inno-Anon, a twelve-step group for recovering innovation speakers." Needless to say, Lee was thrilled by "The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong," by Harvard historian Jill Lepore. Armed with wit and meticulous research, Lepore cuts through all the bullshit peddled over the last couple of decades by "innovation" gurus, notably Clayton Christensen, author of the 1997 bestseller The Innovator's Dilemma. A couple of delectable details: In 2000 Christensen launched an investment firm, the Disruptive Growth Fund, that closed less than a year later after losses of 64 percent. In 2007 Christensen predicted that "Apple won't succeed with the iPhone." Lepore, in short, wreaks creative destruction on Christensen's schtick--which, incredibly, continues to influence the business plans of companies like The New York Times.

"American Socrates," a profile of Noam Chomsky by Chris Hedges, truthdig, June 15, 2014. I may not always agree with Noam Chomsky—the greatest linguist ever and one of our era's greatest social critics--but I always want to know what he thinks. In fact, lately I've been telling young science journalists that when assessing some new claim they should ask themselves: What would Noam Chomsky think about this? In other words, ask how the claim might serve the interests of powerful people, groups or institutions. (I tried to take this approach in my critique of optogenetics last year.) If you want to know more about Chomsky, read this profile by journalist Chris Hedges, another social critic I admire.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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